Members and firefighters recall blaze that consumed historic church

SUN-GAZETTE ARCHIVES The nearly 100-year-old St. Boniface Catholic Church is destroyed by fire on Dec. 5, 1972.

During the early morning hours of Dec. 5, 1972, a spectacular blaze consumed the nearly 100-year-old St. Boniface Catholic Church on Washington Boulevard.

“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what my eyes were telling me. My church was on fire. I was baptized there, born and raised in St. Boniface Parish,” John Troisi said in a recent interview.

Alerted about 4:15 a.m. to the news of the fire, Troisi raced from his Grampian Boulevard home to the scene, where he saw the church steeple already was ablaze.

He quickly joined other members, including the late Dick Welteroth, who were trying to save whatever they could from the burning structure.

“We went into the back of the church. There was smoke and flames everywhere. We went through a door to the sacristy. We were able to carry out some of the sacred vessels. It was scary,” Troisi, the retired co-owner of Troisi’s Men’s Wear, said in an interview at his Loyalsock Township apartment. A sacristy is a room behind the altar where vestments and holy vessels are kept.

“There was about a dozen of us there. We started picking up things, sacred vessels, and got them out of there. We couldn’t save much because flames were all around us,” Troisi said.

“We were all worried about our safety, but we wanted to make sure that these sacred vessels would not be destroyed by the fire,” he added.

The church pastor, Monsignor Eugene J. Clark, who lived next door, was doing all he could to help.

“He was a super man,” Troisi said of Clark.

“In the area of the altar, there was a lot of smoke coming out from the basement. Smoke was barreling out of every window that was broken,” Troisi said.

“Chalices and containers for the hosts (consecrated bread and wine for Holy Communion), we got them out. We couldn’t salvage pictures or statues. They were all being burned,” Troisi said. “Our emotions were frazzled.”

Seeing the historical church ablaze was terribly upsetting for hundreds of people, including Mary Rose (Hamm) Kriner, who could see the flames from a third-floor apartment on Russell Avenue, several blocks east of the scene, where she and her husband, Ted, lived.

She was raised in the church and the couple had been married there the previous year.

“You could see the tower burning. It was an awful feeling for me,” she said.

Her husband, then a six-year member of the Loyalsock Township Volunteer Fire Co., rushed to the church after hearing the call on his fire radio.

“Looking at that burning tower was very dramatic. To see the tower engulfed in flames, I knew then that it was the death knell of the church,” Kriner recalled during a recent interview.

“Church fires are always depressing,” he said.

City firefighter Matthew Kitko also saw the fire from his home on nearby Mary Street.

Like Kriner, Kitko heard the call about the blaze over his fire radio. “I looked out a window and saw the flames. I knew I better get going,” he said.

“I don’t ever like to see any school or church burn, but when it’s your own church, it’s definitely harder. It was tough for me to see that,” said Kitko, who now lives in Montoursville.

Kitko often walked to church services from his home.

In a reflective writing about the fire that Clark shared with his church members three years after the blaze, the priest recalled how he and others tried to save what they could on that terrifying night.

“Somehow, I managed to remember and operate the combination of the safe (in the sacristy) and open it. I removed all the chalices (and other holy vessels). Parishioners came in and helped carry them to the rectory.

“I also scooped up all the vestments and several liturgical books. From the main altar, we were able to remove only the two mass candlesticks. Then the smoke became so dense we had to leave,” Clark wrote.

Shortly after 5 a.m., Clark “heard words that chilled me.”

City Fire Chief Morris Longo, who was directing operations, shouted at the top of his lungs, “The ceiling is coming down. Everyone out,” Clark wrote in the reflective piece.

“I had two thoughts simultaneously — God help those men in there and, the church was finished. I knew there were about 10 firemen up in the sanctuary area and three others in the tower. I prayed that they had not broken through a door and gone out over the ceiling,” Clark wrote.

“The men came literally rolling and tumbling down the front steps. With a terrible crash, roar and explosion of fire and flame, the great ceiling, along with huge timbers, began to fall into the nave of the church,” Clark recalled.

Kitko, who had been on the department eight years, was outside the church. He also remembers the sound of the ceiling collapse.

“It was definitely loud. There were a bunch of booms when the stuff started to cave it. We all knew then that the church was done. All we could do after that was pour water on it,” said Kitko, who moved up the ranks in the department before retiring as chief in 1995.

“The story is that when Chief Longo realized that the firefighters were losing the church, he knelt down and prayed,” Kitko said of his former boss, who, like him, was a Catholic, but was a member of the former Mater Dolorosa Church on Hepburn Street.

“I don’t believe there were any injuries,” Kitko said.

“All the firemen managed to escape by an open door on the west side of the church,” according to Clark, who wrote the reflective piece that appeared in a 1975 church dedication book that highlighted the fire and the rebuilding of a new church. The booklet was edited by Troisi’s wife, Patricia “Patsy” Troisi, who died in 2014.

Clark wrote that Longo listed the cause of the fire as “unknown.”

“The evidence is that the fire began in the basement, perhaps around midnight. It ate its way up through the church between the plaster walls and the brick,” according to Clark.

“The fire finally entered the attic, where hot gases ultimately caused the gigantic timbers supporting the roof to smolder and burn. This process continued for several hours, ultimately resulting in the explosion and huge conflagration,” Clark added.

Clark, who served at St. Boniface from 1970 to 1984, died in January 1991 at the age of 66.